This is why driving is more dangerous than cycling

Many Canadians don’t cycle because they say it’s too dangerous. More dangerous than driving a car, anyway. Right?

Cars feel safe. They’re big and sturdy. They come equipped with air bags, seat belts and other safety features. Though we hear about car accidents almost daily, we tend to assume they won’t happen to us. The odd car accident is a risk we just accept. We have to get around somehow.

Cycling, on the other hand, feels scary. Bikes are small and flimsy. They have no air bags or seat belts. It’s easy to feel exposed on a bike, as if at any minute, your life could come to a crashing halt. When we hear about biking accidents, we tend to assume they could definitely happen to us, or to anyone riding a bike for that matter, at any time. We assume that, statistically speaking, accidents are common. And why take the risk when you could safely drive wherever you need to go?

WHAT THE STATS SAY

To figure out whether these perceptions are valid or not, it makes sense to look at the accident statistics. Unfortunately, this is a bit complicated for a few different reasons.

For one, looking at the absolute numbers can be misleading because so many people drive and so few people bike. Way more people die in car accidents every year than cycling ones, but that doesn’t really say anything about the relative risks. The second problem is that minor biking accidents are thought to be underreported because they don’t often involve insurance claims or hospital visits.

To compare apples to apples, it’s best to use fatality stats per 100 million trips. Luckily, stats like this have been compiled in BC.

According to a paper published in 2014, for every 100 million trips taken by car, there were 9.6 deaths. For every 100 million trips taken by bike, there were 13.8 deaths.

Now, you might look at these numbers and think they confirm what we originally thought. But keep in mind that the numbers are for every 100 million trips. That’s a lot of trips. Like a ton of trips. What these stats show is that deaths from car accidents and bike accidents are both quite rare. The way we feel about bikes and cars, you might have thought that biking was 100 times more dangerous than driving. But that’s simply not true. One is a super tiny percentage, and the other, while slightly bigger, is still a super tiny percentage.

To make the point even more clear, consider how safe you think walking is. Relatively safe, right? Possibly even safer than both driving and cycling? Nope. For every 100 million trips on foot, there were actually 14.7 deaths. Yet, few people choose not to walk because it’s dangerous. And again, this isn’t wrong. The numbers are still quite small. What this reveals is that our perceptions about how safe it is to walk, bike, or drive don’t actually match the real risks.

THE OVERLOOKED CONSIDERATION

What’s often not considered when thinking about safety is the long-term health consequences of driving versus cycling. While accidents and fatalities affect a small percentage of drivers or cyclists, the long-term consequences are felt by every single driver and every single cyclist.

Driving very obviously involves sitting still in a car, often up to a few hours each day. To put it bluntly, the health effects of this sitting time are horrendous. Drivers are at an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. For every hour you spend in a car each day, your risk of obesity goes up by 6%. There’s no way around it, driving is hazardous to your health. It shortens your life.

Cycling, on the other hand, does the opposite. Cycling can reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, depression, and certain types of cancer. It strengthens your heart, muscles, bones, and brain. In fact, one study found that the benefits of cycling are actually nine times greater than the risks. Even when accidents and exposure to pollution are accounted for, cycling has the potential to increase people’s life expectancy by up to 14 months. To put it simply, cycling lengthens your life.

STILL NOT CONVINCED?

To summarize, the typical perceptions we have about the safety of driving and the dangers of cycling are not well-founded. Fatalities from driving and cycling are both quite rare, while the health effects touch everyone. As a result, when it comes to your health, and the length of your life, cycling is the safer choice and driving is the true danger.

Yet, simply knowing that cycling tends to lengthen lives, and driving tends to shorten them, isn’t enough. It won’t change your feelings, or anyone else’s, overnight. We live in a culture that’s embraced the car, and that makes it hard.

We live in cities that are built for cars first. We are surrounded by people who think cycling is borderline foolish, while driving just makes sense. Changing the infrastructure, and people’s minds, takes time.

That’s why it’s important to be armed with accurate population-level stats and sound arguments, so that when people talk about cycling versus driving, you can confidently say that, contrary to popular belief, driving is more dangerous than cycling. And here’s why.